In the kitchen of New Mexico State University’s 100 West Cafe, fragrant pork noodle and vegetable soup simmers on the stove as students bustle about the dining room, putting the finishing touches on elaborate and beautiful Asian table centerpieces and place settings.
Over in the Bobby Lee Lawrence Academy of Wine, Chef Pete Mitchell oversees the wine tasting, where dinner guests are sampling sake and other wines that will pair with their dinner of seared ahi tuna and ponzu sauce.
It’s a scene that rivals any upscale restaurant. What sets this international dinner apart is that everything from the over-arching theme down to the fold of the napkins was planned and executed by students in the NMSU School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management’s restaurant operations, food management and events management courses.
Mitchell, who stepped into his new role as a college assistant professor in the school this fall after a 25-year career in the food industry in Las Cruces and Houston, said the international dinners offer students an opportunity to develop their ideas and try them out.
“This is more than a class or a dinner,” Mitchell said. “It’s an experience for them. They get to find out what it takes to put on an event.”
Two more sold-out Thursday dinners are planned this semester – Arctic Circle Cuisine on Oct. 29 and Southern & Creole Cuisine on Nov. 12. The popular international dinners sell out early in the semester, and tickets for the spring slate of dinners will go on sale in late January.
“They’re working in the lab right now honing recipes,” Mitchell said. “This is their class. I’m just here to facilitate and encourage, and get them thinking critically.”
That hands-off approach appeals to Anne Marie Roberts, a senior HRTM major who hopes to eventually become an instructor herself.
“He helps out a lot, but he’s more like a devil’s advocate,” Roberts said. “Instead of telling us what to do, he guides us – he’s trying to make us think for ourselves about what will and will not work.”
Senior Ali Kelton, a food science major, said she likes that the students have the freedom to explore their ideas. She served as kitchen manager for the Asian-themed dinner, and said it was an eye-opening experience.
“We learned about how to think on our feet and solve problems,” Kelton said. “It’s stressful because you’re being pulled in a lot of different directions, but I was able to jump in and help my team out.”
College Assistant Professor Julie Correa’s events management class designs and executes the visual presentation for the dinners, and she said the collaboration provides the opportunity to understand what it’s like to work with a client to meet a specific vision for the event.
“It also gives the students an opportunity to see that no matter the size of the event, there are always times you might have to iron linens, polish silver and glassware and move tables,” she said. “There is more manual labor involved in the planning and execution process than students sometimes think about.”
All that behind-the scenes labor makes for a guest experience that keeps many people coming back semester after semester.
The Asian-themed dinner was the first for guests Becky and Frank Chavez. As they sipped their wine and mingled with friends, they said they were looking forward to seeing what the students were capable of.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Frank Chavez said. “It gives them real experience so they can take that to the real world, and it gives the public the chance to see how well they’re doing.”
For student Ann Marie Roberts, that interaction is what the hospitality industry is all about.
“We get to put smiles on faces,” Roberts said. “That’s what I love about cooking, and that’s why I like this class so much.”
Author: Amanda Bradford – NMSU